Shaken, and also Stirred: Recollections of the Mexico City Earthquake (of 1985)

Exactly 32 years ago (according to the Gregorian Calendar convention as I write this) I was preparing to fly into Mexico City after the major earthquake there (19 September 1985). Like most Americans, I was horrified by the destruction and dismayed by the suffering displayed on our television screens in the aftermath of the 8.1 magnitude temblor. But what could I do? At the time, I was a PhD student and of limited resources. My friend Brad Gray, a fellow student who had grown up as a missionary kid in Mexico City, suddenly asked me if I would like to go down and help with disaster relief. His father was then Partnership Missions director for the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT). Brad, an excellent organizer with local knowledge and fluent Spanish, would be on the ground helping direct the effort by an organization within the BGCT called “Texas Baptist Men.” When I protested that I didn’t speak Spanish and had no real connection with the group or special skill, he replied, “we’ll find you a job; come on!” So, I agreed to what would be a life-changing experience.

1985-10-002-MexicoCityc
A destroyed building with rescue workers on top in the aftermath of the 19 September 1985 Mexico City earthquake. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Mexico earthquake this week—on the very day of the 32-year anniversary of the 1985 event—has triggered memories of the earlier event. I hope, dear reader, you will indulge my reminiscences in this post.

I was not a “first responder” (I use quotes because that term was not used then), nor was I to be involved in the dramatic work of searching for survivors or victims. The Texas Baptist Men had developed a disaster relief team and equipment, including a fully self-sustained kitchen built into an 18-wheeler setup that was ready to go and provide thousands of meals a day. Similar rigs prepared and operated by the Baptist Men organizations in several other states were going down as well. This was a mission to provide food for displaced survivors, coordinating the effort through the Baptist Convention of Mexico.

The several mobile kitchen rigs arrived and set up in various high-need locations around Mexico City. The Texas unit was established in a soccer field in the barrio called Tepito, a place known then (and still, apparently) for being somewhat lawless. It was a poor neighborhood in which the quake destroyed a great many old buildings, displacing a large percentage of the residents.

Texas Baptist Men's Disaster Relief mobile kitchen set up in the soccer field of the community center in the Tepito barrio
Texas Baptist Men’s Disaster Relief mobile kitchen set up in the soccer field of the community center in the Tepito barrio, late Sept-early Oct, 1985; note the ham radio antenna, the only means of communication. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

With all the states’ Baptist Men Disaster Relief units set up in similar locations, but widely dispersed, the main problem would be logistics. By this time, a few days after the earthquake, international aid had flowed into the city in the form of basic food supplies, but it and other staples were in government warehouses. The Mexican government (primarily the Social Protective Services) authorized distribution of supplies to the kitchen units, but they would have to be picked up from the warehouses. A 1.5-ton box-van brought by the Texas Baptist Men was suitable for the job, but no one in their crew was confident about driving it into parts unknown with little information, no real directions, damaged infrastructure, and no communications. Just then, a 28-year-old PhD student with an underdeveloped sense of caution arrived with no other assigned job.

The working area behind the mobile kitchen unit.
The working area behind the mobile kitchen unit. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Brad gave me keys to the box-van and the task of fetching basic food stuffs from far-flung warehouses and delivering the same to four mobile kitchens buried in the chaos of a wreaked major city. With a few pesos I obtained a couple of city maps—there were no GPS helps in those days and no cell phones. Communications between the kitchen units and the hotel base were not a problem, as virtually all of the involved laymen were ham radio operators and each kitchen unit had its own radio setup. This did not help me, however, while on the road. My lack of Spanish was also still a concern, but within hours Brad got a fellow missionary kid down from Texas to be a translator.

The Chevy box-van
The Chevy box-van used to transfer supplies from government warehouses to various state Baptist Men’s mobile kitchen disaster relief units in Mexico City, following the 19 Sept 1985 earthquake; with pilot/navigator AncientDan, and translator Greg. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The aid team was billeted in a local hotel that had survived relatively unscathed. They even had a functioning kitchen and produced a huge pot of huevos rancheros every morning. They were fantastic and still today I think of them most days as I make my own version. The daily routine after breakfast was to get my assignment, consisting of what supplies to get at which government warehouse, and to which kitchen units to deliver them. Another assignment was often waiting when I made delivery.

Driving through the city I was struck with the odd juxtaposition of devastation and normal life. Parts of the city were demolished and other parts were visibly unaffected. Tent cities of displaced persons could be seen with businessmen in suits walking by on the way to their offices. Life goes on; normally for some, and profoundly differently for others.

Makeshift shelters
Makeshift shelters in a public space along a major artery in central Mexico City after the 1985 quake. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The warehouses were all over the place and I would navigate there using my trusty maps (I still have them). In most cases, I was obliged to go to a government office for approval from some bureaucrat, where I was invariably told, “you may get the [so-and-so] in [so-many] hours.” Awkward sitting around in a stark office with no activity followed—which I finally concluded must have been an encouragement to offer some incentive for quicker service. Not having any significant cash with which to provide such incentive, I learned it was best to say (through my translator and new friend Greg), “we’ll be back then.” Not wanting to waste gas, we might jump on the subway and grab some food or explore. In one case, I determined there was an archaeological site of interest nearby, so I managed a quick visit (possibly soon the subject of a “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour” post).

The delivery truck and food line
Residents of Tepito, lined up for meals, next to “my” delivery box-van, at the Texas Baptist Men’s disaster relief unit. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The delay in signing approval forms was decidedly not to arrange labor to help load. It was usually just the guy with the key, Greg, and me who would stack the supplies in the box-van. We loaded thousands of pounds of sacked corn and rice (I don’t remember beans) and the like. The most memorable loads were weiners and chickens. They came from meat-processing plants. For the weiners, we drove into a “refrigerated” building (it was merely not too hot) and past hundreds of hog carcasses hanging on hooks (a macabre sight stuck in my head to this day) to a room-sized locker. It was filled with linked weiners—all unboxed. We simply coiled them on the metal floor of the van.

One morning I was instructed to pick up 1,000 pounds of chicken from a certain warehouse.  After the usual formalities, we arrived at a locker similar to the weiner room. I was naïvely expecting packaged cut-up pieces like breasts and thighs. When the door was opened, thousands of plucked chickens tumbled out and onto the floor. Slightly troubled, we casually tossed them individually into the back of the van in a great pile. I vividly remember making the delivery (to the Louisiana Baptist Men site?) because when we opened the back of the truck, the local ladies that were recruited to cook began yelling excitedly, “Pollo! Pollo! Pollo!” and joyously hauled them off to the giant pots. What I had subconsciously rejected for my own consumption was a major blessing to those in need.

Driving in power-deprived Mexico City was a trip (in the 70s sense of that term). I learned that even functional traffic lights were routinely ignored and that fortune (as well as actual movement) favors the bold. Also, the larger and more beat-up vehicle had the right-of-way in this system, so the old Chevy box-van was a winner! The only things that didn’t yield to me were garbage trucks, dump trucks, and city busses. Getting to the kitchen sites was a bit of a challenge. Roads were closed, choked with piles of debris, or incredibly narrow in the barrios where the rigs were positioned. In one case, access was only through an alley that was a half a centimeter too narrow. Both ends of the rear step/bumper scraped with a horrible din on the stone curbing for several hundred feet, to the alarm of the neighborhood adults and great amusement of their kids. Veterans of my Study Travel and Excavation Program adventures may correctly conclude that Mexico City in 1985 profoundly shaped my driving tendencies.

The Results
The Results: thousands residents of Tepito get a meal at the Texas Baptist Men’s disaster relief unit. (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Without resorting to clichés, I find it difficult to verbalize exactly how this experience was “life-changing,” as I noted in the first paragraph. I credit it with giving me confidence in strange and foreign situations, and in finding my place of service to others—which often seems to be in the weird peripheral or transitional areas. But the impact of my experience was not so much about me as about the chance to observe and process.

My observations and some random thoughts (in no particular order):

  • I find it difficult to take pictures of people under duress (thus there are no dramatic pics here).
  • Life goes on. I did take a picture of a man in a business suit walking to his office past a destroyed building and across the street from a tent encampment [unfortunately, I didn’t load that picture to post from my current whereabouts]. It was a striking (to me) juxtaposition.
  • Life can be crappy in its continuation. You and I (and all people) must decide if we will try to make it less crappy for those we can help.
  • I am not convinced that a selfless desire to help others is completely inherent. I rather think we must be shaken by events and be stirred to to the point of that decision.
  • True Religion is helping those that do not have the means to help themselves, and true mission activity is found in genuinely providing aid rather than mere words (I strongly recommend reading James 2).
  • It is better to build bridges than walls.

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4 thoughts on “Shaken, and also Stirred

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your experience working with the Texas Baptist Men. Your narrative dramatizes the photos. They’re pretty interesting on their own, but, wow! What a story!

    How have you managed to preserve these pictures that well? They’re beautifully saturated and sharp as tacks.

    Like

    1. They were originally Kodachrome or Ektachrome slides (don’t remember which and can’t look from here) taken with left-over film from an archaeology dig that summer in Israel and scanned a couple of years ago with a Nikon slide scanner.

      Like

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your experience working with the Texas Baptist Men. Your narrative dramatizes the photos. They’re pretty interesting on their own, but, wow! What a story!

    How have you managed to preserve these pictures that well? They’re beautifully saturated and sharp as tacks.

    Like

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